Inception Review: Video Games Should Be Jealous

Illustration for article titled Inception Review: Video Games Should Be Jealous

Inception is a big movie about flexible dreams and stubborn minds, but it is also a sorting hat. Try it on and you will know if you're a gamer, or if you're not.


This most mysterious summer blockbuster comes from Christopher Nolan, director of two morose and mighty Batman movies as well as the clever and captivating Memento, a film told in reverse. The lead is Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb, a man of special abilities who embarks on the never-smooth "one last job" before a hoped for retirement and return to family for which he dreams. Cobb's talent is the invasion of people's dreams, usually perpetrated with an Ocean's 4 or 5 of crafty, quirky fellow invaders. For his last job, however, he must not simply invade the dreams of an heir to a corporate empire but implant an idea in the subject's mind, an idea the subject will think is his own. This is the act of Inception which we are taught during the film is nearly impossible.

Like a heist movie or a super-hero film, the first half of Inception is a period of instruction and learning, a laying out of how the physics of this movie's world and its heroes can operate, before the latter half unfolds the great event. Both halves involve the world-bending, level-creating, rule-establishing standards of the video game, the engaging magic that compels so many of us to play. If you've played many video games, therefore, so much of Inception may feel both thrilling and familiar. So is it the best video game movie not based on a real video game since.. . Tron?


Puzzle Game: Like Memento, Inception is a vision obscured in the gauze of unconventional storytelling. In this film, the "but it was just a dream" cliché of bad stories is merely the transition from one scene to the next, with an alarming caveat that that "but" is not quite right. "And it was just a dream,: would be more appropriate, as the movie's heroes explain to each other the rules of consequence involved in invading dreams. Inside these dreams there are security defenses, emergent suspicious agents of the dreamers' psyche, and possibly suppressed overlapping anxieties manifest as treacherous revived wives or frustratingly locked safes. There are rules involving what happens if you get shot in dream fatally or non-fatally, what happens if your dreaming body is shaken and what happens if you dream inside a dream. These rules and the repeated reminders of them resemble the complex parameters of a deep video game. They encourage the viewer to watch how the characters follow them, to keep an eye out for rule-changes and try to foresee the consequences of the next move based on their building knowledge of how all this stuff can fit together. Watching Inception is a puzzle game that you may solve when it ends.

The Modding: One of the moments that will separate the gamers from the non-gamers is when DiCaprio's Cobb asks new recruit Ariadne (Ellen Page) to draw in two minutes a maze that can be solved in one. Is this an amazing request or one I already did in my own way two weeks ago when I laid out a new track in ModNation Racers? Cobb brings Ariadne into a shared dream and teaches her to design and morph the terrain within. They call the dreams "levels" in this movie, inviting the game design comparison. As seen in Inception's trailers, road can be bent back onto itself, making pavement in a city-based dream a ceiling in the sky. Bridges can form from nowhere; optical illusions stepped on. Any modern gamer will recognize Ariadne's dream-shaping experiments as the things they've done re-shaping levels in games they've played. What seems so unreal to some Inception viewers will seem so real to those in the audience who have played games. They — we — will nod and think, yes, this is part of the fun I've been having while wide awake.

The Platforming: Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Inception are cousins in the bending of architecture and the inverting of gravity. Nintendo and Nolan have created wonderful landscapes on which their characters can traipse. While Mario gamers will recognize some of the Inception in-dream tricks as those they've seen in games before, to see them in a movie about brain-invading idea-planting, perpetrated by Leonardo and friends rather than Mario and co. is going to be fun for everyone.


The Boss Battle: Inception's final action sequence — the carrying out of that "one last job" — is a complex, multi-layered Russian Doll scenario that lasts the final third of the movie. It is perhaps too long but it is clever, partially reminiscent of war game Call of Duty, partially of brain-invading game Psychonauts, but magnificent in scope and impressive in the amount of world-bending concepts it expects the audience to track. It's a bravura finish that suggests the need for a sequel or a prequel or anything else that will lets us see and puzzle through other, similar dream-invading adventures.


The Princess In The Other Castle:
THEMATIC SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION The clever game-like structure of Inception is unfortunately welded to another unfortunately common video game trait, a shallowness of emotion. The heart of Cobb's quest is the anguish he feels about the fate of his lost wife, whose presence he re-encounters in dream after dream. Her appearances threaten to shatter the sleeping illusions and ruin both his one last job and his life. In dreams, however, his wife feels less like a person than the ideal of a wife, the fakest character in the film. This is possibly a commentary on our inability to retain in our mind a true vision of a loved one rather than a simplified snapshot. But even if that is the case, it leaves DiCaprio's yearning for her without convincing emotional gravity and his wife's character without convincing appeal. The woman for whom he yearns seems less a convincing person of desire than an object. If I may make another video game comparison to those in the know, think Braid, in which the yearning for a loved one of the lead character was evident but far less a draw than the brilliant world-bending mechanics of the hero's adventure.


It surprises me not at all that the video game creators and players whom I follow on Twitter have been raving about Inception for days. The film is a fun alternate take on the act of making and playing games, on the empowerment of modifying worlds that both gamers and game makers enjoy. Performed beneath a dirge of a Hans Zimmer soundtrack and with that gaming ratio of too-much-action-too-little-convincing-emotion, it is a movie that will feel so familiar to gamers and so exciting.

Inception is a demonstration to the rest of the world of what video gaming can be like, just as it is a fun caper about the great sci-fi notion of invading dreams. Video games should be jealous that moviegoers can be so thrilled about what is great about games by something that is not a video game. That's not much of a tragedy. This movie does video games proud.


Inception was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page, and was distributed by Warner Bros. Released in North America on July 16. Watched the movie to completion.

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The ending. The ending. The ending.

For a movie so intricately woven, and for a story to precisely told, the choose your own ending is out of place and silly. It's the oldest writer's trick in the book for when a writer isn't sure how they want to end it. "Should it be a dream or should it be real life? Both answers work so well . . . oh well, I just won't make a choice! Suckers." Nolan's choice to cut before we saw whether the top fell or not was lazy writing. This way he cannot be criticized for a plot hole either way because we're not quite sure how everything turns out, so we can't truly judge.

Inception was brilliant, but a true storyteller brings his audience on a journey and doesn't leave them stranded midway.